Hot Vents on the Seafloor May Hold the Origins of Life

First Posted: Apr 28, 2015 11:42 AM EDT

Hot vents on the seafloor may have spontaneously produced the organic molecules needed for life. Scientists have found that surfaces of mineral particles inside hydrothermal vents have similar chemical properties to enzymes, the biological molecules that govern chemical reactions in living organisms.

"There is a lot of speculation that hydrothermal vents could be the location where life on Earth began," said Nora de Leeuw, one of the researchers, in a news release. "There is a lot of CO2 dissolved in the water, which could provide the carbon that the chemistry of living organisms is based on, and there is plenty of energy, because the water is hot and turbulent. What our research proves is that these vents also have the chemical properties that encourage these molecules to recombine into molecules usually associated with living organisms."

In order to better understand the reactions going on within and around hot vents, the researchers combined lab experiments with supercomputer simulations. The experiments replicated the conditions present in deep sea vents, where hot and slightly alkaline water rich in dissolved CO2 passes over the mineral greigite, located on the inside surfaces of the vents.

"We found that the surfaces and crystal structures inside these vents act as catalysts, encouraging chemical changes in the material that settles on them," said Nathan Hollingsworth, co-author of the new study. "They behave much like enzymes do in living organisms, breaking down the bonds between carbon and oxygen atoms. This lets them combine with water to produce formic acid, acetic acid, methanol and pyruvic acid. Once you have simple carbon-based chemicals such as these, it opens the door to more complex carbon-based chemistry."

The findings pave the way for better understanding the formation of life not only on our own planet, but also on other planets. It's possible that deep sea vents may have a lot to do with it. Barring that, this latest study reveals that simple organic molecules can be synthesized in nature without living organisms being present.

The findings are published in the journal Chemical Communications.

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